The Commodification of Gender: An Examination of Reality TV and Gender Identity

Minah Chapell | Contributor

 It seems that trans-visibility has peaked in recent times with the production of popular TV shows. These shows have given trans individuals a platform to speak on important and prevalent issues affecting their community. Though this new visibility is certainly valuable, the portrayal of the trans individuals on these shows has proven problematic in certain respects, and it is worth questioning how some aspects of these characterizations of trans lifestyles can be more harmful than helpful.

One such weakness is the influence one’s economic privilege has over that individual’s ability to “pass” or be regarded as a member of a certain identity group. Such economic privileges include access to hormone therapy, reconstructive surgery, and cosmetics. Financial resources heavily influence the accessibility to aesthetically altering privileges.

Transgender people face heightened societal pressure to conform to beauty standards that align with their gender identity. I do not aim to shame individuals for adhering to traditional ideas of what it is to be masculine or feminine, but to critique the the societal pressure for conformity and how reality TV reinforces those ideas. For many, their economic status often times prevents them from achieving the privilege of passing. Society has turned gender into a commodity and enforces the notion that the permissibility of their gender identity directly correlates to the amount in their bank accounts. This theme can be observed in reality TV shows like I Am Cait and I am Jazz.

The pilot of Caitlyn Jenner’s show begins with a frame of Caitlyn being surrounded by a make-up crew. All while discussing the overwhelming support she has received, the crew pampers and primes her. In another frame, she shows Kim her new wardrobe, a college tuition’s-worth of designer clothes and shoes. It is quite evident within twenty minutes that Caitlyn, though disadvantaged in regards to her gender, walks through this world as someone with immense privilege. Her class allows her to exist and inhabit her trans-identity through a skewed, and for many, unrealistic lens.

The gap between Caitlyn Jenner’s reality and that of most trans individuals is staggering. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), transgender individuals face higher levels of discrimination in terms of “poverty, unemployment, homelessness, negative interactions with police, incarceration, and violent victimization.” Sixty-nine percent of transgender individuals have had negative experiences in the workforce, ranging from being denied jobs to wrongful termination. Almost half (49%) have been homeless at one point or another and a little less than a third (31%) have lived on less than $10,000 a year. This places some in compromising positions; overall, eleven percent of the participants in the NTDS survey marked they had sex trade experience. Black and Latinx transgender people reported much higher rates of sex trade experience, 44 and 33 percent respectively. In general, transgender people of color face more discrimination than their white counterparts. It’s crucial to understand that discrimination against transgender individuals is a spectrum; there are multiple factors that affect whether one experiences more or less discrimination] .

As previously mentioned, the discrimination transgender people face is directly influenced by numerous factors which ties into passing privilege. These factors include but are not limited to: class, genetics, and age. Another popular reality TV show,  I Am Jazz, chronicles the life of a teenaged transgender girl. In one her episodes, 15-year old Jazz Jennings questions her doctor when she might be able to get breast implants. In a separate interview with Teen Vogue, Jennings expresses that breast implants would make her “happier with her body and just more secure.” She goes on to explain that the surgery would impact her ability to pass because she would more closely resemble her peers. Again, Jennings’ ability to even consider surgery as a possibility is a huge privilege in itself, as well as a reflection of her economic background.

Of course, TV shows like the aforementioned are great for visibility and generating discussions about gender. However, it would be a disservice to everyone, especially to those of the transgender community, if we ignored the motif of passing in these programs and the inherently transphobic meaning behind the notion. It is harmful to push gender conformity. It is equally damaging to normalize the notion that the permissibility of one’s gender identity is dependent on whether that individual’s physical appearance aligns with cisgender beauty ideals.